Performance goals = really what a manager needs to do

Performance Goals

Let’s be blunt for a second: work should be about performance goals, and essentially nothing else. The time you sit there shouldn’t matter. How you achieve the goals shouldn’t matter (so long as it’s not unethical). The process should be followed, but if the process is jamming people up, the performance goals should supersede the process.

I think we all know this stuff inherently, but most workplaces do not operate according to these principles. Rather, most managers choose to be hair-on-fire, sense-of-urgency-driven all the time. That does nothing but burn the hell out of employees, which ultimately costs the company money. (Although those lines of the balance sheet are dismissed as “a HR thing.”)

In a utopia, managers would be “thought partners.” They’d present a problem, ask you your opinions on the problem, and you’d co-solve it almost (even though one of you makes more money). That’s an ideal managerial relationship because you’re respected, you get to learn/grow, etc. Unfortunately, most managerial relationships are not that. They’re usually pretty awful. Amazing that we spend the majority of our middle lives at work and no one has seemingly mastered the art of directing the work of someone else, eh?

And now: some research.

Performance goals and clarity

MIT has a new article about the most underrated skill for managers. Seemed interesting, so I gave it a read. Ultimately the skill in question is setting up the problem that needs to be solved: what it is, why it needs to be solved, and the “how” of approaches. In other words, provide some context for your employees. The unfortunate reality of many companies is that something is allowed to become a priority simply because “Tim” (or whoever) says it’s a priority and Tim makes a bunch of money. This is why priority management is such a train wreck at most companies. It has nothing to do with actual priority. The focus is on who made the ask.

In the MIT article, this part pops:

Mind the gap. Decades of research suggest that people work harder and are more focused when they face clear, easy-to-understand goals.12 More recently, psychologists have shown that mentally comparing a desired state with the current one, a process known as mental contrasting, is more likely to lead people to change than focusing only on the future or on current challenges.13 Recent work also suggests that people draw considerable motivation from the feeling of progress, the sense that their efforts are moving them toward the goal in question.14 A good problem statement accordingly contains a clear articulation of the gap that you are trying to close.

So basically, if you want people to hit performance goals, you need to set clear and defined targets.

Why doesn’t this happen?

Many reasons, ranging from “bureaucracy” to “we sit in meetings all day” to “my job role is totally unclear.” 


The main problem with performance goals is actually vocabulary. The top ranks of a company literally only care about making money, so all their discussions are around that and acronyms tied to that. No one in the middle really understands, and the rank-and-files definitely don’t. A rank-and-file is concerned about Google Docs permissions. An exec could give two shits. Is that tied to some revenue stream? No? Hard pass.

In such an environment, it’s nearly impossible for performance goals to really get hit in any kind of clear, contextual way. This has been proven by research too. A lot of companies make money at the intersection of “Good product” and “Luck.” It’s certainly not because of their organizational design.

Can we get better about performance goals?

For sure. A quick list of things we could try:

Etc, etc.

Bottom line: if you want performance goals to matter, there needs to be some context and clarity around them. Yes?

Ted Bauer

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